Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal may be best known for playing Bruce Wayne's love interest in "The Dark Knight" or earning an Oscar nomination for her role in "Crazy Heart." But the Columbia-educated Gyllenhaal — recently dubbed "the ultimate hipster actress" by syndicated columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley — is also known for her social activism, including a stint as host of the PBS documentary series "Independent Lens."
In her new film "Won't Back Down," Gyllenhaal plays a mother who fights to improve the public school her daughter attends. The plot of “Won’t Back Down” centers on parents and teachers teaming up to take over a failing school by invoking a “trigger law.” Although that particular circumstance has not played out fully anywhere in the U.S., some grass-roots parents’ groups in places like California are attempting to invoke trigger laws and seize control of failing schools.
"Won't Back Down" will be released Sept. 28, and the film's trailer is playing in theaters. Gyllenhaal recently spoke with the Deseret News about her passion for education issues.
Deseret News: In the context of “Won’t Back Down,” what are your thoughts about public education in America?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think if you live in a democracy, which we do, that it’s incredibly important to have an educated electorate. Because otherwise, how do you choose your leaders? It ends up being based on the sort of feeling they give you, or what their hair looks like, as opposed to really taking the time to think about and analyze their policies. And of course whoever our leaders are is so incredibly important.
I’ve always thought even before I had kids, which I do now, that education was a fundamental part of having a functional democracy and really important. What I’ve been learning is that in many, many, many places in this country, it isn’t working in the way that it needs to be.
DN: You mention your kids. (Gyllenhaal and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 years and 5 months, respectively.) How has having kids affected the way you’ve looked at education?
MG: Before I had children, it was all theoretical — or it was about my education or the way that I had been educated, and the things that worked for me and didn’t. And now I’ve got children around me all the time and I see their little minds and how they work and how easy it is to engage them, and then sometimes how incredibly difficult it is and how it takes somebody who is really trained as an excellent teacher to help. I guess the simple answer is, it’s just not theoretical anymore. I’ve got my heart in it, as opposed to just my brain.
DN: How relevant do you think “Won’t Back Down” is to ongoing efforts at reforming and improving public education?
MG: I guess for me the movie is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s not ultra realistic in style or even in terms of the story that it tells. It’s meant to inspire; it’s meant to inspire a conversation. I don’t think it’s necessarily meant to be a model of exactly how to change the educational system. But I think it’s meant to be about the real truth that we can change things — that one person, two people can really change. I think it is our responsibility when we see things going on in our community and our lives that we believe are fundamentally not right, or not functioning in the way that they ought to be, to try to do something about it.
And sometimes it feels like too much and it feels like we’ve got all these other things going on in our lives or it feels like we’re never going to be able to make a difference, and I think part of what this movie is saying is, "You can." It’s not just these kind of superhero people. It can be anyone — and it’s people who are really flawed just like we are, who aren’t perfect parents.
DN: What are some of the questions do you hope people will be asking each other after they’ve seen this film?
MG: A couple things. One is, “Are you satisfied with the way your children are being educated?” And then — because basically it’s always going to be a class issue on some level, some people who are going to be able to pay to educate their kids, or they’re going to be able to live in districts that are much better funded — the question after that is, “Are you satisfied with the way that most children in America are being educated, and what could you do about it even if you’re okay with the way your kid is being educated? What kind of responsibility do you feel like you have to change it?”